When a home catches fire, this emergency responder helps care for pets

Franklin Frake works for the Red Paw Emergency Relief Team, a Philadelphia nonprofit that provides assistance to displaced pets, and their owners, during and after a disaster involving their home.

David Karas
Franklin Frake has combined his firefighting credentials and a love for animals in his job providing emergency assistance.

In the hours and days following a residential fire, victims can be barraged with decisions and tasks – everything from finding a place to stay, to replacing everyday items, to dealing with an insurance company.

And sometimes, such a tragedy means making the heart-wrenching decision to give up a beloved pet.

Franklin Frake doesn’t think anybody should have to make that decision, and he works on a daily basis to make sure residents won’t have to.

Mr. Frake serves as the emergency response coordinator for the Red Paw Emergency Relief Team, a Philadelphia nonprofit founded in 2011 that provides assistance to displaced pets, and their owners, during and after a disaster involving their home. The organization’s mission is to ensure that all members of the family – furry and not – are cared for.

“The firefighters come, they put the fire out, they do their investigation, and they go home,” Frake says. “We are there for people that are upset. They literally just lost everything, and we are able to give them, most of the time, that glimmer of hope back, that things are going to be OK.”

Just hours before sitting down with the Monitor on a fall day, Frake was on duty and received a call about a house fire.

He immediately grabbed his gear and rushed to the scene, learning from residents and first responders that cats were believed to be in two buildings involved in the fire. After securing permission from the fire department commander, Frake searched both buildings and found a cat hiding under a floorboard in one, and under a bed in the other. He was able to quickly reunite the cats with their human companions – an opportunity he always relishes.

“When we bring animals back and the reunion happens, everybody gets so excited,” he says. “It is so rewarding.”

Rather than self-deploying, Red Paw responders are contacted about fires and other residential disasters through partnerships with the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management, Philadelphia Fire Department, American Red Cross, and other response and relief organizations, both public and private.

Red Paw offers round-the-clock services through the efforts of Frake and founder Jen Leary, as well as a team of five part-time responders.

Beyond performing any necessary search-and-rescue operations, Red Paw also provides pets with emergency transportation, shelter, and veterinary care – sometimes even weeks after an incident. That way, pet owners don’t have to worry about finding a hotel that accepts pets. The postdisaster care thus allows them to focus on the many other issues at hand, helping them regroup and move forward.

“I kind of look at this as more of a social service organization, a little different than an animal service organization,” Frake says.

Trained as a firefighter

No stranger to responding to fires, Frake served as a junior firefighter in high school and later, following fire academy training, as a volunteer at the fire department in Delran, N.J. He joined Red Paw in 2014 and appreciates the opportunity to combine his firefighting training and experience with his passion for animals.

“I have always loved animals,” says Frake, who grew up with lizards and fish, as his brother was allergic to many pets. “Once I got out on my own, incorporating animals was something I wanted to do in my life.”

Frake acknowledges one of the occupational hazards of his work with Red Paw – the five rescued pets he currently has in his Pennsauken, N.J., home.

“I am not allowed to bring work home anymore,” he says, chuckling, “because they wind up staying too long.”

Since the organization’s founding, Red Paw has assisted more than 2,600 pets and 1,300 families. The nonprofit has also reunited more than 800 pets, with 265 in 2015 alone. In addition, responders have seen an increase in search-and-rescue assignments – 58 in 2013, 178 in 2014, and 291 in 2015.

Frake attributes the increase to a broader awareness of Red Paw, as well as expanded partnerships. While he and other Red Paw participants tell their story in the community, he credits Ms. Leary’s personal connections with helping to institutionalize – and legitimize – the organization in and around Philadelphia.

Leary was previously a Philadelphia firefighter, and she’s also served as an American Red Cross volunteer. All Red Paw responders, she says, are trained and certified firefighters and know how to properly operate at the scene of an incident, something that adds to the organization’s credibility among fire department commanders.

“That makes them more comfortable working with us,” says Leary, who also notes the unique nature of Red Paw’s efforts: “There are a thousand organizations that can help if an animal is abandoned. Prior to Red Paw, there was no organization that was doing this kind of specialty work on-scene.”

She continues, “The animals were being left: There wasn’t anybody that was qualified or allowed to go into these fire buildings. Now that we have this team of specialized responders who are able to do that, it gives people another option.”

Filling a gap

Noëlle Foizen, deputy director for public affairs at the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management, discussed in an email interview the role of Red Paw, which was added to the city’s emergency response plan in 2014.

“Red Paw fills a huge response gap for Philadelphia,” she says. “Data shows that people are less likely to evacuate if they cannot take their pets....”

The nonprofit, she says, provides victims of a fire or other disaster with peace of mind as they recover. “Prior to Red Paw’s founding there were times that I would be at [the scene of an emergency] supporting evacuees and trying to hold a cat in my arms or a dog by the collar,” she relates. “Thankfully Red Paw brings not only the expert skill set of animal care and search and rescue, but also ... a huge amount of emotional support.”

Ms. Foizen also praises Frake’s commitment and “his passion for disaster animal response.”

Red Paw has aided creatures ranging from cats and dogs to venomous snakes, potbellied pigs, alligators, and monitor lizards. Responders and volunteers work to find care for any type of animal – even if that means transporting an illegal pet to a zoo or sanctuary. And although they sometimes recover animals that have perished, they acknowledge the comfort that the closure brings to their owners.

“Without us, the animals are just there, and sometimes forgotten,” Frake says.

Red Paw is funded through grants and donations, and its services are free of charge. “Getting funding for something that literally did not exist five years ago has definitely been a challenge,” Leary notes.

Kramer the cat

Hazel Donnelly is one of the many who have benefited from Red Paw’s support. She vividly recalls being just blocks from her condominium in January 2014 when she and her husband learned of a fire in their building. Ms. Donnelly recounts braving the cold while hysterically pleading with her neighbor to rescue the couple’s cat, Kramer, only to learn that no one was being allowed in the building.

“It was just a total nightmare,” she says. “We couldn’t imagine what was going on.”

Fortunately, Leary and another Red Paw responder were able to rescue Kramer – and soon reunited him with his family.

“It was just such an incredible feeling to see that your pet made it out alive,” she says. When the couple wasn’t able to find a pet-friendly hotel, Leary fostered Kramer until they could take him back.

“It just gave me such a sense of relief, knowing that my cat [was] taken care of,” says Donnelly, choking up as she speaks. Red Paw’s “concern was for me to get my life back on track, without having to worry about my animal. Never once did I worry.”

How to take action

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups aiding animals or participating in disaster relief:

San Francisco SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) saves animals, administering care and lobbying for their welfare. Take action: Sponsor a foster kitten or puppy.

In Defense of Animals – Africa provides sanctuary for orphaned chimpanzees in Cameroon while promoting conditions that enable endangered great apes to thrive in their natural habitats. Take action: Help protect chimpanzees.

Lambi Fund of Haiti aims to strengthen civil society in Haiti, which the organization sees as a necessary foundation for democracy and development. Take action: Donate funds for hurricane Matthew relief.

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